Why it makes more sense than usual for the Leafs to move up for the #1 pick

In 2012, Dave Poulin gave an under the radar interview on Marlies TV wherein he talked about top centers and how they are acquired.

For those too lazy to watch the whole thing, Poulin discusses an analysis of the top 24 centers in the league and how each of them wound up with their current teams. With that in mind, I took a moment to look at the top center of every team in the league this past season and marked down how they were acquired:

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Top NHL Centers

TeamPlayerAcquired Via
Anaheim DucksRyan GetzlafDraft
Boston BruinsPatrice BegeronDraft
Buffalo SabresCody HodgsonTrade
Calgary FlamesMikael BacklundDraft
Carolina HurricanesEric StaalDraft
Chicago BlackhawksJonathan ToewsDraft
Colorado AvalancheMatt DucheneDraft
Columbus Blue JacketsRyan JohansenDraft
Dallas StarsTyler SeguinTrade
Detroit Red WingsPavel DatsyukDraft
Edmonton OilersRyan Nugent-HopkinsDraft
Florida PanthersAlex BarkovDraft
Los Angeles KingsAnze KopitarDraft
Minnesota WildMikko KoivuDraft
Montreal CanadiensThomas PlekanecDraft
Nashville PredatorsMike FisherTrade
New Jersey DevilsTravis ZajacDraft
New York IslandersJohn TavaresDraft
New York RangersBrad RichardsUFA
Ottawa SenatorsJason SpezzaDraft
Philadelphia FlyersClaude GirouxDraft
Phoenix CoyotesAntonie VermetteTrade
Pittsburgh PenguinsSidney CrosbyDraft
St. Louis BluesDavid BackesDraft
San Jose SharksJoe PavelskiDraft
Tampa Bay LightningSteven StamkosDraft
Toronto Maple LeafsTyler BozakUndrafted UFA
Vancouver CanucksHenrik SedinDraft
Washington CapitalsNik BackstromDraft
Winnipeg JetsBryan LittleDraft

The final breakdown:

1Undrafted UFA
  • The Leafs, of course, are the one team with an undrafted free agent currently comprising their top center (according to overall ice time per game).
  • The bigger big picture is that 80% of the top centers in the league are homegrown, drafted, products.
  • Outside of Tyler Seguin, arguably 100% of legitimate 1Cs on good teams are homegrown drafted talents.
  • In the case of New York (Richards, UFA) and Phoenix (Vermette, Trade), Martin Hanzal and Derek Stepan, respectively, are beginning to take over and both are homegrown.

I bring this up due to the fact that the Florida Panthers are shopping their first overall pick this year . When asked about shopping the pick, Panthers GM Dale Tallon responded:

[quote_box_center]Well, why not? I’m looking at everything. I’m open for business. You have three options: You either take it, move back, or trade it. So that’s what we’re looking at. What’s the best deal for our future, that’s the key.[/quote_box_center]

In conjunction with that quote are two particular things Tallon noted at his end-of-season press conference for the Panthers:

[quote_box_center] We’ve had a lot of close games. We need a scorer to play with Barkov, a scorer to play with Bjugstad, Shore.[/quote_box_center]

[quote_box_center]We have to go in the free agent market and either make a trade at the draft to get probably two defensemen, experienced, good NHL defensemen.[/quote_box_center]

It isn’t lost on me that the first overall pick appears to be “up for grabs” every June only for the team with the top pick to keep it every single time, but Florida is in a unique situation.

They just made a huge move for Luongo, they are set down the middle with great prospects (Barkov-Bjugstad-Trochek-Shore-Pirri), Campbell is a top-notch defenseman not getting any younger, and they want to make a move to try and get into the playoffs now. We’re not looking at a MacKinnon or Crosby type at the top end of the 2014 entry draft, but there are (or at least appears to be) cornerstone players at the top of the rankings.

Florida is looking for scoring wingers to flank their young centers as well as experienced defensemen; couple that with the Leafs owning the #8 overall pick and it puts them in a prime spot to be a player in any sort of first-overall-pick sweepstakes. That is a reality. Just like when there was the small Jonathan Bernier sale last summer, the Leafs are once again positioned to be ideal buyers based on their own assets and needs.

Seemingly every year the Leafs have been linked to these top centers switching teams only for it never to happen. Be it Brad Richards, Henrik Sedin, or the upcoming Steven Stamkos dream, it has become a tradition here in Toronto.

That’s what makes this opening so golden for the Leafs. There is an opportunity to move up here and finally draft a stud with a top pick before looking elsewhere for the other missing pieces. Central Scouting has listed Kingston’s Sam Bennett, a center, as their top-rated player in this draft. Making this kind of move puts the Leafs in the right direction going forward next year no matter what happens in the standings for 2014-2015.

A top young center would be in place along with a top young defenseman (Morgan Rielly) and what appears to be a very good young goalie (Jonathan Bernier). That’s how franchises are built properly, with a good young center, defenseman and a goalie as the three pillars of stability. And, to top it all off, the Leafs would be able to make this move, one would think, while keeping most of their other good players (Kadri, Kessel, Holland, hopefully JVR; as I’ve said before, there are quite a few good players here).

This is easier said than done and the possibility of this is completely up in the air, but if the Leafs are going to talk about change this is the kind that will set them up for success for years to come. Over the next few weeks, I’m sure we’ll hear fans and media link centers such as Mike Richards, Joe Thornton and Paul Stastny to the Leafs, but there is a much greater opportunity at hand here to bring in a top-flight 18-year-old center who can set this franchise in the right direction for the next decade. That’s far more important than any quick fix.

Forget a culture change. This would be a franchise-altering move, and it’s right there for the taking.